Liberating ideas

A Short History of Subscription Publication by Zosh Barton

 A guest post from Zosh Barton as she explores the history of subscription publishing

Subscription publication was an established form of publishing in the seventeenth century. It involved a relationship between a writer and their future reader in which the writer was sponsored to create a particular book. Subscriptions included one guinea (£33.78 approx.) for a basic subscription, up to five guineas (£168.90) for subscription by a friend of the writer and twenty guineas (£677) to receive a copy of the book when it was finished.

Within this new system women writers thrived. Frances (Fanny) Burney was an early heroine in the history of subscription publication. Fanny had no formal education; she taught herself and began writing when she was ten. Her first novel Evelina, which she wrote in secret, was published in 1778. It was an instant success, praised for its comic qualities and unique narrative style. Evelina opened a new category of fiction that focussed on middle-class women’s lives and it secured Fanny Burney a place in the publishing world. However, she soon learnt that in order to sustain herself financially she would need to find a more lucrative means of writing. Fanny turned to subscription publishing for her third novel Camilla. Her list of subscribers ran to thirty-eight pages.

Some of the subscribers listed in these editions include Jane Austen, Hester Thrace and Edmund Burke, all of whom were influenced by her writing; and so those inspired by her work were also supporting her writing career.

In 2010, a few hundred years after subscription publication died out, Unbound was founded. Like Burney before them, its founders – Justin Pollard, Dan Kieran and John Mitchinson – were dissatisfied with the conventional publishing industry. They noted the lack of publicity for new books being published and the steadily shrinking advances made to writers. So they revived subscription publication, combining it with the sponsorship seen in the modern music industry.

Unbound works by writers putting ideas for books on their website where the public can view them. This revival of subscription publication has attracted established writers such as Kate Mosse and Terry Jones. Established agents for writers have not opposed this revived form of publishing.

Unbound are keen to support young and upcoming writers. This is an exciting prospect for someone like me, particularly since Unbound regards Fantasy, my favourite writing genre, as marketable. Books in this genre such as Jennifer Pickup’s Unbelievable and Hilary Boyd and Barbara Roddam’s Solstice were published in 2012 by Unbound. And I couldn’t help noticing that Unbelievable is intended for a similar age bracket to my current pet project.

Unbound offers women writers a means to pitch, fund and get their books published. Unbound is the modern descendant of subscription publishing, providing a platform for women writers within a largely male-dominated system.